England under-21s have been handed arguably the toughest draw for the group stage of this summer’s European Championship in Denmark by joining Spain, Czech Republic and Ukraine in group B. Stuart Pearce’s men, who were runners-up in 2009 and semi-finalists two years earlier, appear to have paid the price for narrowly failing to secure seeded status for the tournament as they now face a struggle to qualify from the strongest of the two groups.
Group A seems to be the gentler of the two groups, containing hosts Denmark, Switzerland, Belarus and Iceland, who were seeded just ahead of England. The Three Lions have been teamed with Spain for the second consecutive tournament, having beaten them during the group phase in 2009, and they begin this summer’s campaign against the Spanish on June 12th in Herning, where they will also play Ukraine four days later.
But despite the toughest of draws, what are England’s chances of returning with the trophy they last won in 1984? The under-21s also triumphed two years previously in 1982, but the format of the competition has altered dramatically since then, and now imitates the structure of senior competition. Fabio Capello’s side disappointed in South Africa last summer, but Pearce’s young squad is considered one of the most promising on the continent, the likes of Jack Wilshere, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge providing significant encouragement.
Spain are currently odds on favourties to win the competition outright, but despite the senior squad adding the World Cup to their Euro 2008 title last year, the country’s Under-21 side have not been crowned European champions since 1998. That said, manager Luis Milla, is confident his side can emulate their elder counterparts, explaining: “They know what it means to compete. They are used to a certain model, a way of playing, that is very similar at all age levels, and they’ve grown in that system. So they understand the game in a very similar way, and we focus very much on that.” What’s more, Juan Mata and Javi Martinez, who were both members of the 2010 World Cup winning squad, are likely to be called up by Milla for under-21 duty in Denmark, forming part of a very threatening team.
England’s best chance lies in the attacking potency of Pearce’s squad. Daniel Sturridge produced an exceptional individual display, scoring the third, in a 4-0 rout of Denmark at the end of March, when Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck, the highly talented Sunderland pair, also found the net. The only worrying fact is that it was the youngsters’ first win in four games, and England lost the following game, at home against Iceland, having taken the lead. History indicates that pre-tournament form never guarantees the continuation of momentum once the finals competition begins, and England certainly have as good a chance as Spain to bring home the trophy with a squad now brimming with Premier League experience.